Arts - Autumn 2008

From Oppressed to Oppressors

The Battle of Algiers took a pitiless look at the war for Algerian independence, but the filmmakers could not foresee the failures that would result

By Wendy Smith | September 1, 2008


The Battle of Algiers, arguably the most famous and influential political film ever made, was a sensation from the moment it opened at the Venice Film Festival in 1966. French audience members walked out of the screening: memories of the brutal eight-year war that culminated with Algeria’s independence in 1962 were too recent and too raw. They didn’t take kindly to a documentary-style drama that portrayed France’s struggle to hold on to its North African colony as a doomed attempt to stem the tide of history. It won the festival’s top prize anyway. There was no denying the power of Gillo Pontecorvo’s stirring direction, Ennio Morricone’s propulsive score, and Franco Solinas’s screenplay, which dissected the tactics of the insurgents and the French with equal acuity. Shot on the streets of Algiers and cast primarily with non-actors—including Yacef Saadi, who was one of the leaders of the 1957 uprising—the film, based on actual events, seemed to have been snatched from real life. Indeed, when I first saw it in the early 1970s, it was known as the movie that members of the Weather Underground studied to learn how to organize a revolutionary movement.

Judging by results, I’d say they should have studied it a lot more closely, but three decades after the Weather Underground self-destructed (with a substantial assist from the FBI) The Battle of Algiers surged back into the public eye as a touchstone for strategists engaged in nontraditional warfare—on both sides. In September 2003, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon had screened it for officers and civilians involved in creating U.S. policy in post-invasion Iraq. “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas” read a flier inviting guests to the screening. “Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafés. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.” A Criterion Collection DVD released in 2004 accompanied the movie with scads of documentary extras underscoring its contemporary relevance. In one of them, a discussion of The Battle of Algiers as a case study, counterterrorism expert Richard A. Clarke points to an organizational chart of al-Qaeda and notes its similarity to that employed by the rebel FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) in Algeria. Its cell structure ensured that capturing individual members and torturing them for information had little impact on the group’s ability to function.

But the importance of The Battle of Algiers does not lie in its usefulness as a training film for terrorists or as a demonstration for occupying powers of How Not to Do It. Like many great works of art, it encompasses multiple points of view as it expresses a singular vision. Like all political art, it runs particular risks. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, described by Abraham Lincoln as “the book that started this great war,” has been dismissed by some modern critics as a sentimental Victorian effusion. Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat was carried from his studio to the Louvre in 1793 by a crowd of sans-culottes who venerated it as a tribute to a martyr to the revolutionary cause; this worshipful portrait looks quite different now to anyone aware of the thousands dispatched to the guillotine by those same sans-culottes in the atmosphere of hysterical paranoia that Marat’s violent rhetoric fostered. The Battle of Algiers has not yet become merely a period piece, nor can Pontecorvo be accused of airbrushing the deadly results of his protagonists’ deeds. Yet it too resonates today in ways the director surely never anticipated.

When it opened, the film was seen—and was intended to be seen—as the story of a national liberation movement, the uprising of an oppressed people who, denied equal rights in their own country, were determined to shape their own destiny. It does not invite viewers to think of the FLN primarily as a Muslim organization. FLN Communiqué Number One (an actual document that in the movie takes the form of a guerrilla broadcast in the streets of the Algiers Casbah) defines the rebels’ goal as “independence and the restoration of the Algerian state in accordance with Islamic principles and the respect of basic liberties without distinction of race or religion.” There’s no suggestion that the two could be in conflict. In the prison where a petty thief named Ali La Pointe is recruited to the FLN, a rebel on his way to execution calls out “Allahu akbar”—God is great, the traditional opening of Muslim prayers—but follows it with the cry “Long live Algeria.” Colonel Mathieu, leader of the French paratroopers dispatched to crush the rebellion, calls his opponents Arabs, not Muslims: their religion is irrelevant; he sees them as anticolonial guerrillas like the Viet Minh, whose 1954 victory at Dien Bien Phu made the French desperate not to be humiliated again in Algeria.

The speeches Solinas wrote for Mathieu and the FLN leaders set the parameters of the debate. Most Arabs in Algiers are not our enemies, the French colonel tells his men. “A small minority holds sway by means of terrorism and violence. We must deal with this minority in order to isolate and destroy it. . . . This isn’t military work, but police work.” Captured guerrilla Larbi Ben M’hidi gives the fln’s view when he is paraded in front of the press in handcuffs. Asked if the rebels have any chance of winning, he replies calmly, “The FLN has more chance of beating the French army than the French have of changing the course of history.” The FLN lost the Battle of Algiers, and the film shows its leaders being picked off one by one, climaxing with French soldiers blowing up the house where Ali La Pointe is hiding, observed by a crowd of Algerians standing silently on the rooftops of the Casbah.

Yet the crowd has the ultimate say in a film that, for all its intelligent analysis of strategy and tactics, is at heart a romantic paean to the unstoppable force of the popular will. As Mathieu walks away from the debris of Ali’s hideout in the Casbah, Pontecorvo cuts to masses of Algerians pouring into the streets. A subtitle gives the date: 12 December 1960. Three years have passed, and a journalistic narrator informs us that “no one knows how or why” these demonstrations have erupted after a period of relative quiet. To the rapid pulse of drumbeats that has accompanied every scene of militant action in the film, the crowd brandishes flags adorned with the crescent and star, symbol of independent Algeria. “Thousands of them, seemingly made over­night,” marvels the narrator. “The surprising unanimity of these demonstrations has made a deep impression on French public opinion.”

Pontecorvo then segues to the last day of the demonstrations. “What do you want?” a megaphone-wielding soldier asks the crowd. “Independence!” “Our pride!” “We want our freedom!” three separate voices declare. They are male voices, but the crowd is filled with women, some completely covered and veiled, many in Western clothes. The camera returns again and again to one woman in the demonstration’s frontline. She wears a knee-length dress and a button-down sweater; her head is bare, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail; her strong, proud face is radiant with fierce joy. “Two more years of struggle still lay ahead,” the narrator says as the police push her back. “Then, on July 2, 1962, with its independence, the Algerian nation was born.” She breaks free and strides forward, triumphantly waving a homemade flag. Holding it aloft, she whirls around; large white letters spell out “Fin”: The End.

This dramatic final image thrilled me as a teenager, and it thrilled me again as I watched the film earlier this year, but it raised questions as well. Where would that woman be today, I wondered. Would her head still be uncovered? How many of the men around her, disgusted by the corrupt one-party regime that evolved from the FLN’s triumph in 1962, would have joined the fundamentalist Islamic insurgency that tore apart Algeria in the 1990s? World events since I first saw The Battle of Algiers in 1973 give it new layers of meaning, and they are disquieting.

Most immediately obvious to me are the ones involving women. In the film, a French soldier at a checkpoint is angrily repulsed while attempting to search a woman wearing a face veil and the traditional haik, a voluminous white outer garment. “Never touch their women,” his compatriot says casually, alluding to the centuries-old custom of shielding Algerian women from the eyes and hands of men who are not relatives. That woman’s haik conceals a gun, which she hands to a man beyond the checkpoint to shoot a French official. The Battle of Algiers shows, with historical accuracy, Algerian women putting on and taking off the haik and the veil as it suits their purposes to avoid detection while they take an active role in the struggle for independence. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, three Algerian women don Western clothes, apply makeup, and uncover their hair so that they look European enough to enter the city’s French quarter and plant bombs in a café, a milk bar, and an Air France waiting area. In 1966, Pontecorvo could not foresee that Algeria would minimize the contributions of such women, consolidating the revolution by affirming Algerian identity as Arab and Islamic and acceding over time to an increasingly conservative, patriarchal view of women’s place in society.

Other scenes in The Battle of Algiers were as disturbing in 1966 as they are today. These scenes place the film squarely in a tradition of art that investigates the relationship between political ends and the means used to attain them. One of the FLN guerrillas sits at the bar in a French café, nursing a Coke while her foot nudges a bag concealing a bomb. She looks around, and the camera pans to show us what she sees: people laughing and talking, a child licking an ice cream. After she leaves and the bomb explodes, we see bloody bodies laid out in the street and hear mournful music—the same music we heard earlier as the corpses of Algerians killed by a bomb blast set by Frenchmen were plucked from debris in the Casbah. Pontecorvo portrays the café bombing as a reprisal for the Casbah bombing, which is factual. The script doesn’t mention that the FLN had already massacred French civilians in the countryside, but neither does it mention the thousands of Algerians killed by French warships and airplanes after violent demonstrations for indepen­dence in 1945. “It’s a vicious circle,” says Mathieu, the film’s most pitilessly honest character. A composite of several real-life French officers, played with swashbuckling charisma by Jean Martin as a lucid man of action straight out of an André Malraux novel, Mathieu incarnates the filmmaker’s refusal to gloss over the brutal methods employed by both sides.

“We are neither madmen nor sadists,” the colonel says, responding to journalists’ questions about the torture of prisoners. “The problem is, the FLN wants to throw us out of Algeria, and we want to stay. . . . It’s my turn to ask a question. Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.” Pontecorvo cuts to the consequences: French soldiers immersing a prisoner’s head underwater; a soldier applying a blowtorch to a man’s chest; a bleeding prisoner bound by his hands and feet to a bar and hoisted aloft; a man strapped to a chair, electrodes attached to his body, writhing as the current is turned on. Those who have followed the debates over waterboarding and other harsh forms of U.S. interrogation in Iraq and Guantánamo are likely to squirm. The film is evenhanded, but not impartial; it consistently depicts FLN atrocities as responses to French provocation, and it does not depict (or even refer to) the ritual murder and mutilation of captured French soldiers by guerrillas. Terrorism is the weapon of the powerless, The Battle of Algiers reminds us. “Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?” a reporter asks Larbi Ben M’hidi. “Doesn’t it seem even more cowardly,” he replies, “to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more? Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.”

No one in the FLN is shown flinching from the killing of civilians; the anguished moral debates that consume Dostoevsky’s rebels are absent here. Only a single quiet scene between Ben M’hidi and Ali directly grapples with the nature of their tactics and alludes to the question of what lies beyond victory. They are in hiding on the eve of a general strike called by the FLN to demonstrate Algerian solidarity to the United Nations, which is meeting to discuss whether to send peacekeeping forces to Algeria (it didn’t). Ali was against the strike, he says, because the FLN banned the use of arms for the duration. “Acts of violence don’t win wars,” responds Ben M’hidi. “Neither wars nor revolutions. Terrorism is useful as a start. But then, the people themselves must act.” That’s the rationale for the strike, he explains: to mobilize all Algerians and assess their strength. “You know, Ali,” he continues, “it’s hard enough to start a revolution, even harder to sustain it, hardest of all to win it. But it’s only afterward, once we’ve won, that the real difficulties begin.”

And begin they did. In 1964 and ’65, while Pontecorvo was in Algiers researching the film, the fledgling government was wracked by a power struggle that ended with an army-backed coup overthrowing Algeria’s first president, who himself had arrested or driven into exile many of his erstwhile FLN comrades. Conflict among their leaders had not yet alienated ordinary Algerians. Interviewing people who had participated in the Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo heard their tremendous pride and faith in the revolution; his non-actors re-created events still very fresh in their memories. (While shooting a scene depicting the execution of a political prisoner at the notorious Barberousse Prison where such executions had actually occurred, the director saw tears in the eyes of his Algerian crew.) Financed in part by the Algerians, who provided tanks and troops as well as access to the streets and people of Algiers, the film was nonetheless remarkably truthful about the brutal exigencies of a guerrilla war. It’s perhaps not entirely fair to Pontecorvo and Solinas to note that they depicted a specific period in that war with little reference to what preceded or followed. It is fair to note that they depict only those leaders of the FLN campaign in Algiers who were either safely dead at the hands of the French (Ben M’hidi and Ali) or still getting along with the government (Yacef Saadi, who produced the movie in addition to re-enacting his real-life role). The film never mentions one of the chief instigators of the Battle of Algiers, Ramdane Abane, who was killed in 1957, probably by a rival FLN faction. In the movie we see only the intransigent, privileged French pitted against the resolute, united Arab revolutionaries. The war for Algerian independence was much messier than that, and it engulfed many people between those two extremes. They were not silent even then, but they do not speak in Ponte­corvo’s film. A half century later, perhaps we can hear their voices more clearly.

No voice on the subject of Algeria was more anguished than that of Albert Camus, who harbored divided loyalties of a sort more common among the Algerian populace than The Battle of Algiers ever acknowledges. Born in a township near the Tunisian border, raised in Algiers in dire poverty, Camus was expelled from the Algerian Communist party in 1937 because of his support for Arab nationalists who advocated indepen­dence from France and full civil rights for Muslims. Uprooted by World War II, he worked for the Resistance in France; publication of his existential works The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, both in 1942, drew him into the circle of French intellectuals striving to forge a new philosophy and art amidst the moral quagmire of the Nazi occupation. He remained in France after the war; by the time the FLN launched an all-out assault against the French in November 1954, he had not lived in Algeria for many years. But his mother and brother did, and Camus believed that they and other pieds-noirs (French Algerians) still belonged there. He did not realize that the moderate nationalists he knew no longer led the independence movement, which was now dominated by the more radical FLN. When he traveled to Algiers in early 1956 to appeal for an end to attacks on civilians, he stood on a middle ground that was rapidly turning to quicksand.

“We must organize and stand together,” he told an audience of both pieds-noirs and Muslims in a building on the edge of the Casbah. “On this soil there are a million Frenchmen who have been here for a century, millions of Muslims, either Arabs or Berbers, who have been here for centuries, and several vigorous religious communities. These men must live together at the crossroads where history put them. . . . Our differences ought to help us instead of dividing us.” Valiant words, with French diehards screaming “Camus to the gallows!” on the streets outside. Vain words, perhaps, when the two old Muslim comrades he had invited to join him were now, unbeknownst to Camus, members of the FLN who had decided that his plea for a civil truce would be useful as propaganda. “They didn’t necessarily want the truce appeal to fail,” comments Camus’ biographer Herbert Lottman, “but they knew that it would.”

When it did, Camus maintained a pained public silence about Algeria for nearly two years, though he privately exerted pressure to gain the release of several imprisoned Algerians accused of rebel activities. He was provoked to break that silence and utter his most honest, agonized words about Algeria at a meeting with students at Stockholm University two days after he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Harangued by a Muslim youth who asked why he intervened so readily in other parts of the world but never in Algeria, Camus replied, “I have always denounced terrorism. I must also denounce terrorism which is exercised blindly, in the streets of Algiers, for example, and which some day could strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice, but I shall defend my mother above justice.”

Camus’ ambivalent, complicated position on Algeria was obviously shaped by personal considerations, and by 1958, when he proposed a parliamentary solution to the crisis that might have worked 10 years earlier, the viable choices had more or less narrowed to what Pontecorvo depicts in The Battle of Algiers: the FLN and independence on one side, French rule enforced by the military on the other. It didn’t matter anymore that, as Camus kept trying to remind everyone, many French Algerians were nearly as poor as their Arab neighbors and just as attached to a land that had been their home for generations. Yet his increasingly desperate warnings about the consequences of failure to create an independent Algeria that would accommodate both Muslims and the pieds-noirs still ring true today—truer, perhaps, in light of the tormented history of postcolonial nations from Southeast Asia to southern Africa.

“An Algeria linked to an empire of Islam,” Camus wrote in his final public statement on the subject before his death in 1960, “would bring the Arab peoples only increased poverty and suffering and . . . would tear the Algerian-born French from their natural home.” The sentence has a patronizing ring, with its implicit assumption that an Algerian state without the French would inevitably be poor and backward. But how prescient it sounds when you watch the documentary Pontecorvo made for Italian television in 1992 (included in the DVD). The director returned to Algiers shortly after the government suspended a second round of elections because the Front Islamique de Sault (FIS) had garnered an alarming 47 percent of the vote in the first round.

Most people didn’t vote for the FIS because it promised to create an Islamic state, complete with resumption of the traditional practice of sequestering women at home; Ponte­c­orvo interviewed several Algerian feminists who were terrified at the prospect of an FIS victory. But in a desperately poor section of the Casbah—once an FLN stronghold and by 1992 a hotbed of FIS activity—the director saw how angry Algerians were about the failure of their government to provide a decent standard of living. The crumbling buildings where he had filmed rebels finding refuge in The Battle of Algiers were in even worse repair now. One woman he visited made furious reference to “those crooks” who never fixed anything. The consequences of the FLN’s post-inde­pen­dence rejection of political pluralism were clear. For 30 years it had draped itself in the mantle of “Arabo-Islamic socialism”; what its citizens saw was a one-party system that enriched only those at the top and refused to accept its rejection at the polls. Lacking alternatives, many turned to a party of religious fundamentalists with no interest in the democratic process except as a route to power.

Camus did not live to see Algerian inde­pendence and the attendant exodus of almost the entire European population. Among them were more than 100,000 Algerian Jews, many of whom had supported the FLN. It was an Algerian Jew, Henri Alleg, whose book describing his torture by paratroopers had played a major role in raising doubts among the public in mainland France about whether the war to retain Algeria was morally defensible. But the vicious last-ditch stand by the intransigent pieds-noirs of the Organisation Armée Secrète, which deliberately targeted symbols of French-Muslim cooperation in an orgy of killing during the months preceding independence, had created a poisoned atmosphere. There seemed to be no place in independent Algeria for liberals, of any ethnicity, dreaming of a pluralist democracy—a political system that would embrace the heritage of its fully emancipated Muslim majority yet acknowledge the contributions of the French minority as more than mere instruments of the hated colonial regime.

The novelist Assia Djebar speaks for that Algeria. More accurately, she speaks of and for a diverse, polyglot Algeria whose complexities are invisible in The Battle of Algiers. These complexities proved to be a threat to the FLN government Djebar initially supported, whose policy of “Arabization” eventually drove her into exile. But before that came Children of the New World, her fictional account of the Algerian war. Published on the day before independence in 1962, it offers a revealing counterpoint to Pontecorvo’s film. The novel unfolds in a small town near the mountains, traditionally a rebel stronghold. One of the central characters is a Muslim woman, veiled and sequestered, happily married to a man secretly involved in the resistance. To warn him that the police are looking for him, she has to venture outside “a house she never leaves, as tradition has prescribed”; she must walk into town and ask directions to his shop from schoolboys who take her for a prostitute despite her veil. Respectable Muslim women never enter this public space; the young Algerian in a short skirt and heels who drinks and dances there with French soldiers is a police informant whose own brother kills her to prove his worthiness to join the FLN. “I was sullied and I cleansed myself,” he thinks. Djebar stingingly unveils the patriarchal roots of his supposedly revolutionary act in the next paragraph: “As a child, he was told that’s how a man spoke when his honor was offended by a daughter who gave herself to a stranger.”

Rejecting French colonialism need not mean rejecting the ideals of liberty and equality that the French government refused to extend to native Algerians. We see this through the history of another central character in Children of the New World, Lila, a philosophy student whose widowed father defied his family by insisting that his teenage daughter continue her education instead of being sequestered. “Don’t count on her joining your harems!” Lila remembers him saying to her outraged grandfather. “She will be free.” Once she was safely installed in boarding school, he left for France; “always in the shadow of family and father,” he too felt oppressed by Muslim tradition. The FLN that Djebar depicts, a secular group that provides women a route out of the house and into the public arena, implicitly promises liberation from those traditions as well as from French rule. “The revolution is for everybody,” insists a 16-year-old girl who has argued and cajoled for more than a year before finally gaining admittance to the band of brothers headed into the mountains in the novel’s final scene.

That did not turn out to be true. When Djebar’s play Rouge l’aube was broadcast on Algerian radio in 1970, all references to women’s participation in the war for indepen­dence were deleted. She had already been criticized for being insufficiently “committed,” for writing too much about her characters’ struggles for personal freedom. Now she was reviled for writing in French, the language of the oppressor. But French was the language in which Djebar acquired the education denied to most Algerian girls in the 1950s, and it was not the only tongue slighted when the government enshrined Arabic as the nation’s sole language. Djebar’s Berber ancestors took the religion of their Arab conquerors in the eighth century but retained their mother tongue, still spoken today by a substantial minority of Algerians in a variety of Berber dialects. The FLN’s policy of Arabization ignored the heritage of the Maghreb, the Berbers’ ancient homeland in modern-day Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Djebar’s home­town of Cherchell has a history typical of the region. Settled by the Phoenicians in the fourth century B.C.E., a trading partner with the Carthaginians, an African capital of the Roman Empire, it has residents who still tell stories about the Kahina, a warrior queen who led the Berbers in their final stand against the Arabs at the end of the seventh century. The Kahina may have been Jewish (she certainly was not Muslim), and her example lives among the Kabyles, the largest Berber group in Algeria. Kabyle women, writes historian Martin Stone, “are usually unveiled [and] have traditionally enjoyed greater freedom within the family and in public than their Arabised sisters.”

Much of Djebar’s work since Children of the New World (screenplays and plays as well as novels, short stories, and essays) has celebrated and investigated this rich historic legacy. She utterly rejects the FLN’s false monolith of “one religion, one language, one nation,” insisting that Algerian identity is multiple: female and male, Berber and French and Jewish and Arab, secular and religious, traditional and modern. She continues to write in French, informed by the cadences of Algeria’s many tongues; she was elected to the Académie française in 2005, and as a professor at New York University she specializes in the Francophone culture of postcolonial nations. Deeply immersed in the social issues of her time—the war for independence, the crippling impact of patriarchy—her fiction nonetheless asserts the primacy of individual experience, particularly the experiences of women. Her angriest, most agonized book, Algerian White, written in the dark middle of the 1990s civil war, mourns friends murdered by fundamentalists in their jihad against a cosmopolitan, multifarious society that cannot be contained in a religious or political straitjacket. It also revisits another death: that of 46-year-old Albert Camus in a 1960 car accident. Imagining the reaction of Camus’ illiterate, nearly mute mother, Djebar implicitly links this grieving pied-noir to the countless other Algerian women whose voices have been unheard. Cool to Camus in her youth, when he seemed an overbearing (French, male) literary forefather, Djebar here reclaims him as a fellow Algerian who embraces their ravaged homeland in its entirety and pleads that it not be divided. “It is Camus,” she writes, “who first felt the strange fissure involved in living in the very heart of a colonial war, a civil war, as a rending of the breast.”

There is no rending (or beating) of breasts in The Battle of Algiers, whose protagonists on both sides are wholly committed to their cause and express no second thoughts about the methods they employ to achieve it. There is no place in its cast of characters for a pied-noir who supports independence but rejects terrorism, or for a woman who finds her patriarchal FLN comrades almost as oppressive as the French. To say this is not to impugn Pontecorvo’s good faith or the movie’s general truthfulness; there was no place for such people in the final stages of the Algerian war either. Political art thrives in extreme moments, when battle lines are drawn and individuals are swept up in the exhilaration of collective action. It challenges us to look beyond personal circumstances to the social and economic forces that shape them, and our culture is narrower when it lacks this kind of art, which spotlights a vital aspect of human experience. Pontecorvo demonstrates in The Battle of Algiers that the making of history is a drama as compelling as the story of a love affair. But “the course of history” invoked by Larbi ben M’hidi is by no means as straightforward as the film suggests. Camus and Djerba remind us of the roads not taken and the people erased from the national narrative.

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